I recently read a novel written by a short story writer I really respect and it got me wondering.
This writer’s short stories are wonderful. But I was disappointed by her novel.
There were places of fine writing indeed, but the novel didn’t resonate like her stories, it seemed flat in some way and I wondered why.
Many creative writing coaches and programmes start writers out on short stories, but their goal eventually is novel writing.
They see short stories as sort of the training wheels on a bike, to be taken off when the basic skills have been mastered. I think that’s all wrong.
A short story is not just a novel without a lot of words. A short story is something all together different.
There are excellent short story writers who struggle in the wide expanse of a novel and novel writers who can’t work their words down to the crux enough to make their short stories any good.
They are two completely different ways of telling a story.
First, there are the simple, obvious things. A short story should have one theme, it shouldn’t have sub-plots, it should have very few characters.
A short story is often written in a small amount of time, even in a day. It is read in one sitting.
A short story writer is always pruning, trying to remove words that are not pulling their weight.
A short story is about a significant moment. Like Sherrie Flick said in The Huffington Post, it is “describing a big world through a small window.”
Tiny things matter in a short story. Your character in a short story doesn’t just put on a red hat. Nothing is insignificant. That red hat must have meaning. In a short story significant detail is king.
But you can imagine that kind of writing in an 80,000 word novel. It would drive the writer and, more significantly, the reader insane.
In a novel, a lot of time is spent establishing the premise- what is this about? You do not have the time in a short story to do that, you must hit the ground running, and you must keep running until the end.
Science fiction writer Orson Scott Card had this to say when trying to peg down the difference between novel and short story, “A novel isn’t a half-dozen short stories with the same characters. The seams invariably show.
Why? Because a novel must have integrity. The novel, no matter how dense and wide-ranging it might be, must have a single cumulative effect to please the reader.
Every minor climax must point toward the book’s final climax, must promise still better things to come …Ideally, a short story is an indivisible unit – every sentence in it points to the single climax that fulfils the entire work.
One moment in the story controls all the rest. But in a novel, that single climax is replaced by many smaller climaxes, by many side trips or pauses to explore.
If you keep shaping everything to point to that one climax, your reader will get sick of it after a hundred pages or so. It will feel monotonous.
To keep the reader entertained (i.e., to keep him reading) you must give him many small moments of fulfilment along the way, brief rewards that promise something bigger later.”
Author David Ebenbach sees the difference like this:
“What the novel says, I think, is that any single event is the result of many, many things…..
The short story says something different—not contradictory, but different.
The short story suggests that any single moment or detail, in some sense, contains everything: the characters; their problems and promise; the significance of the events; human nature, more generally; the past, the present, and the future.”
For me a short story takes small events, tiny details, a few moments, to leave us with a single lasting resonating feeling.
You finish the story and you wait a bit, you consider that feeling. Maybe it’s sadness, or loneliness or apathy. But a good short story will not be ambivalent on the impression it leaves behind.
A novel gives you a big wide field of ideas and emotions. There are many mini-moments in a novel, there has to be to keep you going.
Even the writing of a novel is different; it is a sustained activity over months even years.
Because of this, trying to slash a novel to become a short story, or pull a short story into a novel, I think is almost certainly a recipe for failure.